Restaurant Review:Shaw-naé’s House on Staten Island

“Do you trust me?” the chef asked.

It was late, going on 10 p.m. The kitchen of Shaw-naé’s House, a six-table restaurant on Staten Island, had been slammed all night and was running low on a few things. Actually, a lot of things, including almost everything I’d just tried to order.

But then Shaw-naé Dixon, the owner and chef, entered the dining room with a proposal. She offered to put together “a smorgasbord” of odds and ends, full portions where she had them, little tastes where she didn’t. She promised it would be enough to feed my two friends and me. She’d come up with a fair price later, if I promised to trust her.

Trust her? This was Shaw-naé’s House. I was speaking to Shaw-naé herself. We were hungry. She had all the food. Who else was I going to trust?

As I’d soon learn, I’d been in Ms. Dixon’s hands the minute I’d walked through the door. In many restaurants these days, it can be hard to tell who owns the place. At Shaw-naé’s House, it’s not hard. She’s the one in the apron who wears black braids swept up above her head and wrapped around and around like a turban. The one in the cooking videos playing on big screens that hang high on the walls. The one who, on her breaks from cooking, walks from table to table, saying hello to everybody, inspecting their plates to see how their appetites are holding up, asking about their health.

When she’s in the room, the word “love” gets batted back and forth often. Regulars get a kiss if they’re seated, a hug and a kiss if they’re standing up. In Ms. Dixon’s book, a regular is anybody who’s been in more than once.

It was my first time, but she took control of my meal anyway. She went away to the kitchen and returned a few minutes later with an amount of food that was staggering for a place where half the menu had been eighty-sixed. She’d fixed us a tray of catfish, large nuggets fried in herbed bread crumbs, with a house tartar sauce on the side. The catfish had a sweetness and tenderness I’ve rarely tasted outside the South.

Lined up on another tray were rows of chicken wings. They stayed crunchy even though they were wet with a dark glaze that tasted of cinnamon French toast in maple syrup.

Ms. Dixon brought out a small soup bowl. Inside, mounded over white rice, were what must have been the last of the oxtails. There was enough for me to tell that they were more than a little Jamaican, stewed in a sweet, inky sauce. I could taste fresh thyme and ginger, and allspice berries and something else, close to licorice — star anise.

She brought macaroni and cheese, too, the good kind, where the macaroni spirals around and holds on to the cheese, which is orange and melty and dotted with herbs and pepper.

And the smorgasbord kept coming. There were smothered turkey wings in gravy that tasted like Thanksgiving dinner and a red snapper that had been cooked in the deep-fryer — the whole thing, tail and all. The fish was inside a golden shell like the crust on fried chicken, golden and so crisp that the crunch rings in your ears. Later, Ms. Dixon said she got it that way by frying it twice. It had cooked in a curved stance, so it stood up on the plate, rising above a colorful pile of crisply sautéed vegetables.

This was a kind of soul-food cooking I’d never encountered in New York before. Parts of Ms. Dixon’s menu, like the smothered turkey wings and the cornbread she tops with berries or mashed sweet potato before baking, are not too different from the traditional Southern dishes you’ve had if you’re lucky enough to know a very good soul food kitchen where everything is made from scratch that day.

Other times, though, she plays freely with the old recipes — lightening here, tightening there, adding fresh herbs and vegetables cooked quickly so they keep their color and crunch. That side of her cooking is a little reminiscent of the way Tanya Holland used to bring modern flavors and a bit of California sunlight into her menu when she owned Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, Calif.

The Jamaican oxtails at Shaw-naé’s House are from a different cuisine entirely, but Ms. Dixon cooks them with the same freedom and authority she brings to collards and fried whiting. Some customers, tasting those oxtails, have asked Ms. Dixon whether she has any Caribbean heritage. “This is the only island I’m from,” she tells them.

Ms. Dixon belongs to one of Staten Island’s oldest families. One of her ancestors was a ferry operator named John Jackson, who in 1828 bought the first lot of land in what became Sandy Ground, believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited free Black settlement in the United States. By the Civil War, Jackson had been joined by an exodus of free Black shellfishermen from Maryland. They made Sandy Ground a prosperous oystering village, until pollution forced the Raritan Bay oyster beds to close.

Ms. Dixon, who has no formal training, learned traditional Southern dishes from her grandmother, who was born in Sandy Ground. She taught herself to make a few Caribbean recipes after she began work as a caterer. Laying out buffets for movie and television shoots around the city, she watched what the cast and crew ate, and expanded her repertory.

Ms. Dixon opened Shaw-naé’s House in 2021 in Stapleton, a diverse neighborhood that holds, within a few blocks, a mixed-use waterfront development with a new trattoria and enoteca; the old-guard Sri Lankan restaurant Lakruwana; and an epic mural with black-and-white portraits of the artists in the Wu-Tang Clan. (RZA and Ghostface Killah used to live in a housing project about half a mile away.)

As Kwame Onwuachi, another former caterer, does at Tatiana, Ms. Dixon applied the instincts she honed in that trade when she opened her restaurant. She doesn’t just focus on individual dishes, as chefs trained in culinary school often do. She sees the whole spread, and has a feel for the way communal plates and a sense of abundance can get a party off the ground. (Toward that end, it also helps that Shaw-naé’s tropical rum punch is very drinkable, highly effective and served by the pitcher.)

Every once in a while, traffic in Shaw-naé’s dining room will halt while servers carry out a ShawCuterie Board, a long plank piled with chicken wings, cornbread, cheese cubes and grape clusters. This is a move straight out of the caterer’s handbook.

The same spirit must have been in Ms. Dixon’s mind when she came up with Soul Fries. Soul Fries are like nachos, but with French fries instead of chips, and the usual toppings replaced by cut-up bits of fried chicken, spoonfuls of collard greens, and hunks of macaroni and cheese that have been warmed so their orange cheese starts to run into the cheese sauce with which Ms. Dixon has covered the fries.

There was never enough space on my table for a ShawCuterie Board. I made space for the Soul Fries, though. By that time I was on my second visit, and I’d learned to trust.

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